Arsenal faced Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in a quarter final FA Cup tie and progressed to the semis with a 2-1 victory. This looks like a really good win on paper, but Mikel Arteta cannot possibly be happy with the teams performance.
The Gunners lined up in a 3-4-3 formation with some of their most important first team players but looked significantly worse than they did during the 2-0 victory against Southampton earlier in the week, and many other games since the turn of the new year.
Arsenal’s recent improvement since the appointment under Arteta hasn’t always yielded results but the club is moving in a very positive manner. They look more proactive without the ball and look significantly better at retaining the ball during their build-up play. Both of these qualities are what appear to make up the foundations of what Arteta wants to push on with at Arsenal but against Sheffield United they looked nothing like the proactive team Arteta is looking for.
In possession Arsenal were very rigid in shape, something that is highly uncharacteristic of Arteta-ball. The wing-backs were offering width but incredibly reliant on one-two passes with their nearest central midfield partner, making their moves predictable and easy for Sheffield United to read and defend against.
When managing to reach the final third, Arsenal were successfully overloading the wide areas of the pitch but looked outmatched in the centre, often leading to crosses and cutbacks that were ineffective and gave up possession too easily.
Using Arteta’s preferred 4-3-3 since the restart and even the 4-2-3-1 before that, Arsenal had the support from an extra midfielder and the narrow inverted wingbacks to offer options by using underlapping runs, or more commonly sitting as a passback option and allowing the wingers to take on the opposition player 1 on 1. The 3-4-3 system takes that away from Arsenal and whilst it does allow for the extra numbers out wide, it’s not the trademark of the side Arteta wants to build.
Whilst still looking fragile at times, Arsenal have looked far less error prone since Arteta’s appointment. David Luiz had a poor game against Manchester City but aside from that Arsenal haven’t many many crucial errors defensively since the start of 2020. This is partially down to Arteta’s emphasis on playing out from the back fluidly, but also because Arsenal have been good at counter pressing and dropping at the right times.
Using a 3-4-3 system, counter pressing becomes highly ineffective because the central areas in midfield are already exposed and easier to exploit, making it hard to push the opposition players out wide and in tight areas. The most common, effective way of defending in a 3-4-3 is to drop deep into a more defensive 5-4-1 shape and rely on opponents to make mistakes on the ball or wait on pressing triggers before making an attempt at pushing up. Neither of those tactics have been a part of Arteta’s blueprint since joining the club and so it makes little sense to proceed with a completely new idea.
It should be noted, that if Arteta can find a way to use the 3-4-3 system in a way that coincides with the fundamentals he’s tried to implement during his short spell at Arsenal, it could be a useful weapon to use in certain games. Against Sheffield United, it appeared to be a system that was chosen purely in an attempt to manage the squad and choose players who were less fatigued. Whilst that makes sense during the congested fixture list, Arteta must not lose sight of the long term goals and sticking to the principles he’s set out in the last 6 months. If he prefers a 4-3-3 shape generally, he should focus on making it work – as his mentor and many others already have.
Photo: Kieran Clarke (2014)